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Have a Blast on Your Birthday

WikiMedia Commons photo posted by Donald Swanson

I caught the NPR story on the radio this morning that today was the 30th year since the major volcanic eruption at Mount St. Helens (what do you buy a volcano on its birthday, and technically, no not really its birthday). What was I doing May 18, 1980? I was a junior in high school, and probably was day dreaming in English class or fretting over a pimple. (I was a dork, really). My blog archives do not go back that far. I cannot even remember if I heard it about it, maybe in the newspaper?

Volcanoes loom big, sleeping giants, til they blow and ruin your airplane flight plans. They don’t really care if their ash affects your day planner.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has an incredible mass shared image archive of the history of Mount St Helens – in all aspects, the USGS does a huge amount of open content sharing. From my dim geology past (more later), Mt St Helens was a known entity, it was monitored long before May 18, and was bulging, creaking, leaking steam in the months leading up, and really what happened was less a vertical POOF, and more of a pressure nurst off its side- hot high oressure liquid rock, or magma, moved upward, and the side of the volcano burst open under pressure. The eruption was more of a “lateral blast” as it decompressed into the atmosphere, the front of the blast reaching supersonic speeds.

In college, I ended up studying geology, and my pursuit of a masters degree led me to Arizona where I found myself in a group of geologists known as volcanologists. An odd group indeed. I liked them.

Some 50+ people died in the May 1980 event; imagine if it were close to a major city? But the human stories are fascinating too.

There was the iconic named Harry Truman who refused to leave his home on Spirit Lake. And what about David Johnston, who was died on the observation post at Coldwater Ridge when the blast blew right over it, whose last words by radio were “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” (nearest city was Vancouver, Washington). In photos, he is your stereotypical flannel shirted geologist.

There is even a photo of him on May 17, the day before, sampling a fumarole on the side of the volcano. That would have been a bad vantage point a day later. They renamed the location Johnston Ridge.

Probably the most interesting story I knew of was Harry Glicken. He was a graduate student at University of California Santa Barbara, and it was actually even before he started his program that he became a research assistant in the field to David Johnston. In fact, Harry was supposed to be on the observation post at Coldwater Ridge on May 18, but had to be at UCSB so Johnston filled in for him.

That is eerie.

In my graduate work, I met Harry a few times at conferences and on field trips. He was kind of an unlikely geologist, today, you might peg him at first glance as a computer geek, but he was the real deal- super serious and hilariously funny I recall. In a way, he seemed haunted by the Mount St Helens experience, but he never left the field. He was among that group of volcanologists who had a hunger to be in the danger zone, on the flanks of active volcanoes. Ironically, he cheated death at a volcano once only to be among a group of 40 some other scientists killed at a 1991 eruption in Japan, also among them, the Kraffts, a French couple who specialized in getting incredible photography and video of active volcanoes. I remember one time at a conference they talked about going out on a highly acidic volcanic lake in a titanium canoe. I don’t know why that details remains in my brain, but they had that volcano hunger too.

In graduate school, I ended up studying past volcanic activity. I dont recall a decision to be safe and not follow the live eruptions, it just was the flow of my interest at the time. One project I worked on was studying a later, smaller eruption at Mt St Helens in 1980, on August 7. This one was of interest because Rick Hoblitt, another USGS field observer, had captured a series of photos of the front of a pyroclastic flow as it cascaded down a channel of the volcano, and since his camera had a time stamp, he was able to calculate its velocities by location the front of the flow on a map.

I could not find Rick’s photos online, but I was lucky in that I got a complete set:

USGS photo by Richard Hoblitt

It was via my graduate school research..

My advisor at Arizona State University at that time, Sue Kieffer, who was also with the USGS, had suggested looking at the flow dynamics in terms of hydraulic flow models, to investigate the dynamics of the channel shape, etc. We spent a year researching and writing, eventually publishing a paper in Geology in 1991. See how and narrow research can get? Dod anyone follow the jargon there?

Volcanoes are iconic things. Not to be taken lightly. Intriguing.

So if today is your birthday, have a blast. Laterally, literally.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Yes indeed, happy birthday to anyone who might just happen to be celebrating a birthday today.

    And I have to say I’m a real junkie for stories of CDB’s work as a geologist. Your gift of expressive storytelling makes your account of grad school quite compelling–not something I can say about all grad school stories, to be sure….

    So thanks. More CDB geology stories!

  2. Great story. I never realized so many died in that blast. I was living in Calgary at the time and remember the ash. It was a Sunday morning.
    Several years later, I flew over. I couldn’t believe how much of that mountain had been blown away. I have driven all around that mountain. You’re right. Volcanoes are not to be taken lightly.

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